Time to decide on third-level funding

Failure to fund higher education stores up problems for the future It is close to three years since the publication of the report of the expert group on funding Ireland’s third level institutions.

According to the Cassells Report, the sector required additional investment of €600m annually until 2021, rising to €1bn from 2030. This is needed to allow the sector to continue to support economic and social development and to allow greater access to higher education.

The report suggested three possible approaches to funding colleges. These included an income contingent loan scheme, full public funding, and the retention of the current student contribution with increased public investment. The report spelled out clearly that the status quo was not sustainable. Since its publication the status quo seems to be the preferred option for government.

The report and its recommendations have been knocked into the Oireachtas committee system and largely ignored. The latest news, in the middle of last year, was that an economic analysis of the Cassells recommendations would begin in early 2019. There has been no announcement of such a review starting.

Will there be any surprise if government announces that the report now needs to be updated, thus buying another few years and putting the decision onto subsequent governments?

This minority government is reluctant to face up the growing need for a sustainable funding model for the sector. The delays are

making matters worse and are likely to mean more investment will be needed as a result of current inaction.

As a university lecturer of course my interests need to be declared. However, it is clear from statistical evidence and experience that the third level sector is in need of public investment.

According to the OECD, in 2016, there was an average of 20.3 students for every teacher in higher education institutes. This compares to 15.8 in the UK, 12.1 in Germany, and 10.4 in Sweden. Belgium and Greece are the only EU countries with worse ratios than Ireland. Public expenditure per student in Ireland is substantially less than the OECD and EU average.

From 2008 to 2015, funding to institutions fell 14%. The public funding decline of 38% was partially offset by the increase in student contributions. At the same time, student numbers rose by a quarter. The sector is increasingly focused on attracting non-EU students, who pay substantially higher fees. Brexit is seen as an opportunity as colleges look to bring in many of the international students put off by the UK’s less than enthusiastic welcome. Currently close to 10% of all students pay non-EU fees, though this can be expected to grow substantially.

The most significant change may come at postgraduate level. In the UK, 42% of postgraduate students are from outside the EU, which is double the proportion in Ireland.

While it is plainly a good thing that our colleges and classes are becoming increasingly international, this creates challenges for all staff and Irish students.

Ireland’s third level institutes now received a majority of their income from sources other than the public purse. This development has come about without a debate. Although maybe some way off, there may emerge a conflict between the objectives of the sector and national

objectives.

It is clear now that we do not lack evidence or analysis for policy making. What is lacking is political courage.

Whichever of the Cassells’ options are chosen, it is now necessary for the Government to act.

Declan Jordan is senior lecturer in economics at Cork University Business School, UCC

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